The Bestseller by Elizabeth Amisu
See them. Black uniforms – gold letters. Faces pale in the brisk April cold as they fling paperbacks from shop windows. Reaching out, fingers spread like these aren’t even books. Listen to the urban confetti as it thuds to the ground. To them, this isn’t a wake but a wedding ceremony. “Catch the bouquet! Catch it!”
There was once a time when people would mourn the loss of a celebrated author. That time is dead.
Now, former readers gather collections of hard and soft covers, posters, bookmarks, anything they can get their grubby mitts on. It is the day of reaping. It doesn’t come often, but when it comes, it’s literally a free-for-all.
Have you ever heard the phrase: I could murder a good book? In this city those words are true. When an author dies, their work (and all its derivatives) instantly become free. Imagine it – a life’s stock, instantly liquidated. Death freezes their features, the taxman freezes their estate. Not a coin more. Not ever.
I sit on the pavement, dazed, watching thousands of fanatics race through the High Street, taking more than they’ll ever read, give away or use as doorstops. I don’t know whether to laugh or weep. I’m still in a sort of shock. I didn’t know it was so frenzied, the paper bloodbath which follows an author’s death. I heard but did not know.
Thwack! A book hits the wet by my feet. There is a man. Tall. Thin. His arms laden with hardbacks: The Dragon’s Egg. He carries them with the preciousness of dragon’s eggs too.
“Alright, mate,” he says. “Have that on me.” Is he speaking to me? I look down. A small hand reaches into me, picks up the book and shakes it. I hadn’t noticed him there: the kid who takes a long look at the cover and wipes it with a sleeve. It’s little things like this which remind me I’m dead.
The kid’s cheeks are so bright they’re almost fluorescent. I had forgotten there were kids so sweet in all the world. I thought they were all mostly machines. I forgot that I too was a sweet kid once, who loved to read.
“Why’d this happen to her?” The kid says to the man. He’s looking up. I mean really looking up, the way you only can when you’re several times smaller than someone else.
“Ah, you know how it is little man…”
“But she was still writing the last Hart.”
“Maybe someone didn’t want her to.”
“It’s not fair,” the kid’s staring at the novel in his hands, like it’s going to open up and give him some answers. So many questions in his face, ones he’s too afraid to ask: What happens to Sidonie and Daniel? Do they save the city of Hart? What about the Engraver’s Guild? He’ll never know.
And do you know what? I’ll never know either. Because I never know how a book ends till I finish it. And I hadn’t finished it.
I leave the older guy with his keepsakes who has no answers for the kid, and I leave the kid who’ll just have to content himself with fancycles, where a thousand professional amateurs make up endings to fill the nine-book ache. Truth is – it’ll never end. The Hart Epic will forever be synonymous with intrigue and murder. That should make me feel something but it doesn’t.
I walk. I like looking at people: the coifs of their hair, the way they hold their bags, the colours they choose. I like to watch them laugh, count the recovery seconds when they stumble. All around the carnival continues. They walk past. None of them know. I can’t help thinking they should feel me walking through them. They should know. They are holding my words.
I was Cypria Vander. We only have pseudonyms. There isn’t a choice if you want to write and stay alive. Apart from the armed forces authorship has become one of the most dangerous professions.
One law released a madness into the air that nothing could put back. Other countries began adopting it, papers lauded it as the fairest thing the legal system had ever done and the same people who loved their authors, ravenously wanted their works for free. And so, I never met my editor or my agent. The day I sent my first manuscript my palms were so wet they left huge handprints in the envelope. Just to be caught writing a book was enough to send a person floating down the Thames. The brief said: IF WE DO NOT TAKE ON YOUR WORK THIS MANUSCRIPT WILL BE BURNED.
Manuscripts go to manuscript houses. All hush-hush, plain clothes, any-man’s office of anything at all. Even the publishing houses have fort-like security. The chain-links between everyone in the industry are so many and far between it’s a miracle anything gets published at all.
The funny thing is, people buy more books than ever. In a world where there is so much digital ephemera they actually want books. There is now a life-and-death sexiness about them. And I became book rich.
I was safe for a long time. That’s why everyone publishes in series. No one’s mad enough to publish a single volume. Not since Caxton King. Caxton King was a great literary star. Someone should have told him, the greatest stars explode most magnificently. He wanted to sit and sign books for his fans. He got that. What came after was horrible. A shock for the nation.
I used to feel admiration for old people like him, like we were running a gauntlet of possible diseases and accidents. The elderly were victors of previous arenas, gladiators. Their slow gaits were battle scars, lack of hearing, squinting eyes all testament to the fact that they had not been beaten.
I don’t think that way now. If you can even call what I do thinking. I know now that no one really dies; not in the way we think of it, as some transitional state. It’s not even shrugging off a jacket. I’ve shrugged off big coats with more ceremony than I shrugged off my body. I simply walked out of it, and through the café doors.
I had no great awakening, no great dawning of knowledge. I don’t know who killed me but I do have a hunch as to why. It rhymes with honey.
I close my eyes. When I open them, I am following that kid. Placing one foot in front of the other. He lives in one of the centariums with his brother and his aunt. There are pictures of the mum all over the house but she’s not there. She’s become an unspoken wound. While they eat they don’t mention a dad. There probably wasn’t one. Like me, and my mother before me, he was probably a bio baby. So many bio babies these days.
I leave them there and go into his bedroom. It’s filled with Cypria Vander things: every book, every edition, posters, tv–adaptation cast interviews, magazine cut-outs. A poor-kid’s shrine. Packed under the bed, next to the unfinished letter to me there is a manuscript. A guilty pleasure, an opportunity to dream. I can see it all now. He’s going to be an author.
Perhaps, if the series had finished like it should have, he would have put me in a mouldy attic box but death makes me formative.
I hope he will be rich, I hope he will be famous. I hope it doesn’t kill him.